It’s been two consecutive first round exits for the Portland Trail Blazers, both in very disappointing fashion after disappointing regular seasons. After Dame willed Portland through the 2019 NBA bubble and was promptly swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers, the team tried to retool. Only it led to a frustrating exit to a shorthanded Denver Nuggets as Head Coach Terry Stotts was unable to turn around one of the worst defenses in the league by the time the playoffs rolled around. It cost him his job, and his dismissal seemed to be a signifier of a swirl of changes to come. Rumors of a CJ McCollum trade, stories printed about Damian Lillard pondering other NBA cities, and countless whisperings mock trading Ben Simmons to the City of Roses. Except when free agency began and the trade season was heating up, the Blazers were silent. They re-upped Norman Powell and added some low-level free agents in Tony Snell and Ben McLemore, but other than that, things seemed to cool down in the middle of summer for the Pacific Northwest. There were no blockbuster trades, no panic moves, and the team decided (for right or wrong) to stand behind new head coach Chauncey Billups. Instead, they kept their powder dry and, as a result, may have landed one of the most high-impact players to change cities this summer.
Larry Nance Jr. hasn’t been in many headlines the past couple of years after being traded out of Los Angeles to a then LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers team. After James skipped town, the Cavaliers plummeted to being a team that most people were unaware was still playing professional basketball. Being a part of bottom-dwelling teams tends to blind people as the fog of mediocrity hovers around the players. And even though Nance Jr was playing in the same city that his father made his own during his NBA career, he seemed to be somewhat erased from the average fan’s mind. But it was here in the shadows that Nance Jr grew into a high-impact NBA player.
While his traditional per-game counting numbers don’t look too impressive, 9.3 points / 6.7 rebounds / 3.1 assists, his impact on the court rises above that. At 6’7” with a 7’1” wingspan, Nance wreaks havoc on the defensive end of the court, nabbing 1.7 steals per contest with his freakishly long arms. He has quick enough feet to defend power forwards and is big enough to bang with centers. He shoots 3.3 three-point attempts per game and makes 36% of them, meaning he can also space the floor on offense from either spot. He is an ideal player for the modern game.
This is the exact type of skill set that the Blazers front office has been searching for years. They were hoping the oft-injured Zach Collins would turn into this versatile chess piece before injuries stunted his growth. Instead, they’ve been putting out strictly nothing but traditional big men. They have gotten their doors blown off by the Golden State Warriors with Draymond Green plus both the New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angeles Lakers with Anthony Davis. Portland’s inability to go small to match teams has been an Achilles heel for their defense, especially in 2020, where they got lit up for 114.3 points per game. It’s nigh impossible to get to the top echelon when you’re leaking that many points.
It’s also important to consider that the backcourt pairing of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum represents a huge disadvantage on the defensive side of the ball, as opposing ball handlers can drive past them with relative ease at the point of attack. This only exacerbates the issue of pairing them with a 7-foot behemoth. Jusuf Nurkic is a talented rim protector, but injuries have slowed him to the point where he struggles getting from the hoop to the perimeter and then back again with urgency. If Portland were to slot Nance Jr into the five-spot, they could get a massive upgrade in speed without a big drop-off in rim defense. With Robert Covington and Norman Powell also on the wings, the Blazers would, for the first time, have three lengthy defensive players back-stopping their point of attack.
Or, Portland can get creative when facing a team that still utilizes a large center like the Utah Jazz or Phoenix Suns. While it may seem mad on the surface, finishing with a Lillard-Powell-Covington-Nance Jr-Nurkic five-man line-up would offer some serious defensive versatility. Losing McCollum would hurt on offense, but Powell’s underrated on-court creation would make up for some of that while also taking away an easy spot to attack for the other team on defense. It may be for the first time in a while that Dame would operate with a defense that could actually suppress opposing scoring, rather than the team needing to rely on him to outpace the other team single-handedly.
It all boils down to how this will affect Dame’s final decision about whether to stay in Portland or leave for glossier pastures. Nance Jr is a good, even great, roleplayer, and how he can upgrade the Blazer’s defense is nothing to scoff at. But it still doesn’t change the fact that no one on the team can credibly defend Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Paul George, or any of the other premier stars in the Western Conference. Being able to shut down the rim better and be more switchable will help, but the truth is even if Portland can start competing with the Utah’s and Phoenix’s of the world, they are still a clear tier below both Los Angeles teams. Lightning already struck last season when LeBron, Leonard, and Davis were injured, leading to early outs for the top contenders. It would be tough to see both of those teams having to deal with those similar hurdles again. The Larry Nance Jr trade probably gives them a 5-10% better chance of reaching the Western Conference finals, but reaching true championship contention remains out of their grasp. In the end, Damian Lillard will have to decide if he is OK with that. It already seems like he has one foot out the door, though, and anything short of a competitive Western Conference finals appearance probably means that the clock will strike zero for Dame time in Portland next offseason.